Laïcité - a response.
- namely that yes, "Too often in France, laïcité has become a disguise for anti-clericalism, and more recently for Islamophobia"
- and that "I would even argue that it has even become a religion of its own".
First of all, it is hard to compare the 50s and 60s to the 90s or the millennium. I agree with you that there have been many changes in French society since Jules Ferry but there have been just many since the 60s. I have been a teacher for 12 years now, and even in that period I have seen change.
Mostly, teachers are not as highly regarded as they used to be and kids and parents are less willing to accept the unchecked power of teachers than before. This is also the result of the change of status of education as a whole notably with the expansion of schooling– more kids going to school longer but with fewer prospects. One of the unintended results is that some parents are willing to oppose teachers or schools, sometimes even by suing them. (Something also unthinkable 20 years earlier).
Now if we take the scarf issue, I agree with you that the parliament debate was not so much about the “séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat”, but it wasn’t either about teacher’s powers. By that time, their “power” was already long gone. You can blame ’68 or politicians, but I think it is the result of some greater and more fundamental changes in our societies.
But I agree with you that the “anti-scarf law” (I mean to make it in such simplistic terms) was an “opportunistic political maneuver” and in my opinion, there was no need for it. The reason is that in most cases, and in most schools, the problem was dealt with by the educational communities (i.e. schools at a local level) who usually found some agreement with the parents. There were only about 10 to 15 cases a year where no agreement could be reached and the student was expelled. Hardly a reason for so much fuss about it or for a law! It was a law that contented the people, just like the Christians killed in the circus games made the Roman citizens happy and forget the real issues.
But the very reason it worked is that politicians (from the right and the left) pushed the right button and the law did not become a disguise for anti-clericalism in the old traditional sense of the word (i.e. a powerful Catholic church as seen in Jules Ferry’s time), but a disguise for the “invasion” of a new religion, Islam and for the fear of extremism. I wouldn’t compare this fear to the trivial Polish plumber. I believe that, especially in 2003, the fear of religious extremism (meaning terrorism of course) was very real to a lot of people. This, remember, was in the wake of 9/11.
From what I remember, however, the Parliament debate was a joke. There was no debate because there was no issue and no disagreement, other than the protest of a few Muslims who quickly rally-round-the-flag when the Iraqi kidnappers of two French journalists demanded that the law should be abolished to liberate them. The uproar only took place abroad and France took the heat for it.
The very fact that there was hardly any debate in this country over this law is also what made me compare lacicité to a religion. Like religion, it has its founding myths, its credo, its cohesiveness and it believes it can save people. It is also shared by a majority of people who think laicité can “set people free despite themselves” and that the Republic will enlighten people. In fact, it is similar to the patronizing philosophy that gave moral grounds to colonization.
I believe that while a lot of things you said in your comment are true, you only see them in French political terms when I think there is a lot more to this whole issue. I think the French laicité has become a refuge for a lot of people who are trying to make sense of an ever-changing world they do not understand, instead of grasping those changes and redefining secularism in post-modern terms –This refuge into laicité is a defense mechanism, a way to cope with anxiety, not unlike religion at times.